Here’s something to try on your friends next time you’re in the pub or at a dinner party.
Let’s assume that, at some time in your life, you will fall foul of the authorities in a foreign country. The good news is you get to choose which one. If you had to get into trouble with the police and justice system somewhere, which country would you choose? (Exclude English-speaking ones because that just makes it too easy.) Where do you think you would be treated the most fairly?
Whenever I have tried this, the answers are remarkably consistent. Most people come up with a similar list of countries. Sweden, Denmark, Norway and the Netherlands are usually in there somewhere.
And what do these countries have in common? They are all monarchies. Some of the least repressive countries in the world have crowned heads of state.
If such a vague idea of fairness doesn’t do it for you, try looking at the data for some of the other things we usually think of as making a good society. The UN’s Human Development Index is a good place to start. It looks at life expectancy, education levels and standards of living. Here are the top ten countries:
That’s 7-3 to the monarchies then!
What about the OECD’s Subjective Well Being index?
- Czech Republic
- New Zealand
That’s 8-2 to the monarchies. Having a king, queen or grand duke doesn’t seem to make people unhappy. Far from it.
Such subjective stuff won’t satisfy the bread-heads among you. Let’s look at some harder data. What about the ten safest countries in terms of financial risk?
That’s 7-3 to the monarchies, again.
“But what about equality,” cry the socialists. Let’s have a look at the OECD’s Gini Coefficients, a measure of income equality:
- Czech republic
- Slovak Republic
That’s 5 all.
I could go on. Look at global competitiveness, labour productivity, social mobility or any of the other good things that the OECD and other international organisations measure and the monarchies are at least as well represented as the republics.
Now before anyone starts (because someone is bound to) I’m not saying that there is a correlation between monarchy and all these good things. Unsurprisingly, the hereditary despotisms in the Arab world don’t score highly on any of these indices. But it is clear that being a monarchy is no barrier to being a fair, equal, happy and prosperous society. All other things being equal, a monarchy is just as likely to be a good place to live as a republic.
Republican arguments that Britain needs to throw off the yoke of monarchy before it can become a less class-ridden and more modern society don’t stand up to scrutiny. The developed countries with which we compare ourselves have, over time, developed broadly liberal and democratic governmental systems. They are all different but all have some sort of electoral process for holding governments to account and expressing the popular will. Whether or not the head of state is a hereditary monarch or an elected president has little if any impact on the sort of societies they have become. Attitudes to fairness, equality and social class are products of a country’s history and culture. If Britain were to become a republic tomorrow, it would still retain its social attitudes and would probably still be less equal than the Scandinavian countries fifty years from now.
Dumping the monarchy and turning Britain into a republic would be a colossal task. A complete new set of rules for our political and judicial systems would have to be written. The design, the public consultation and the implementation of a completely new system of government would take years and cost a fortune.
Becoming a republic, then, would be an expensive waste of time and an irrelevant diversion. As Timothy Garton Ash succinctly put it in yesterday’s Guardian:
Before you abandon a thousand years of poetry, you should be very certain that you will fare better in prose.
And there is absolutely no evidence whatsoever to suggest that we would.
The things that the republicans moan about happen just as much in republics as in monarchies. Heads of state are expensive. Even avowedly republican states like France and the USA have their fair share of pomp and circumstance. Their presidents live in big houses, throw lavish parties and require extensive security to protect them. And as for all this stuff about the Crown giving prime ministers too much power, have you seen the powers a French president has?
When kings made arbitrary judgements, imprisoned people without trial, confiscated their land and forced their sons and daughters into slavery, republicanism made a lot of sense. Even as late as the nineteenth century it could have been argued that our relatively benign monarchy was the pinnacle of an oppressive landed gentry and should therefore be abolished for the greater good.
Power in 2011, though, is more diffuse and monarchs have very little say in the way the country is run. Even the aristocracy don’t have the clout they once did. Financiers and media moguls now have more power than kings and queens, and that is unlikely to change in the forseeable future. Abuses of power still go on, just as they did in the days of Charles I, but these days they happen a long way from the royal palaces.
Hereditary rule is, as its critics point out, an ancient anachronism but for all practical purposes that doesn’t matter. Modern developed countries have made both monarchies and republics work. Getting rid of our monarchy would not do anything to make us a happier, more prosperous or more equal society.
Republicanism is an ideology stuck in the past. It dates from a time when monarchs wielded arbitrary power. But power and its abuse in a modern state is far more complex than it was in the days of bad King John. Republicanism is the day before yesterday’s battle. We have more important things to deal with now.